Russia to annex occupied areas of Ukraine on Friday

Russia will on Friday formally annex occupied parts of Ukraine where it held Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” in which it claimed residents had voted overwhelmingly to live under Moscow’s rule.

The Ukrainian government and the West have denounced the ballots as illegal, forced and rigged.

Russian president Vladimir Putin will attend a ceremony on Friday in the Kremlin when four regions of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — will be officially folded into Russia, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

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Mr Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of those regions would sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St George’s Hall.

The war in Ukraine rages on as Russia says it will annex several occupied regions this week.
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Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defence Council for Friday, apparently in response to the Russian move.

The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up on Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation in Ukraine.

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The Kremlin’s announcement was met with swift rejection from European officials.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country holds the European Union presidency.

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“We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.”

Mr Lipavsky described the pro-Russia referendums as “theatre play” and insisted the regions remain “Ukrainian territory”.

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Other officials who denounced Russia on Thursday over the “sham” votes included the prime ministers of Italy and Denmark and German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

“Under threats and sometimes even [at] gunpoint, people are being taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass ballot boxes,” she said at a conference in Berlin.

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“This is the opposite of free and fair elections,” Ms Baerbock said.

Armed Russian troops had gone door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting.

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Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed on Tuesday night that 93 per cent of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87 per cent in Kherson, 98 per cent in Luhansk and 99 per cent in Donetsk.

Ukraine too has dismissed the referendums as illegitimate, saying it had every right to retake those territories, a position that has won support from Washington.

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The Kremlin has been unmoved by the criticism. After a counter-offensive by Ukraine this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks, Russia said it would call up 300,000 reservists to join the fight.

It also warned it could resort to nuclear weapons. In response, tens of thousands of Russian men have sought to leave the country.

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On the battlefront on Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians in the past 24 hours, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive out of rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.

More fighting near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s biggest – was another source of concern.

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Russian forces occupy the plant, which is Europe’s biggest nuclear power station, but Ukrainian technicians still are running it.

A suspected landmine explosion on the perimeter fence on Thursday that was likely triggered by wild animals damaged electrical lines, according to Ukraine’s national atomic power agency Energoatom.

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